In April, the Cut spoke to Debby Montgomery Johnson, a 60-year old victim of an online dating scam that cost her more than $1 million. “We talked about everything, we talked about kids … For me, looking back now, it was very therapeutic, because I could write so much more than I could ever articulate in speech,” she said of her romance with an “international contractor” that started on an online dating site.
Eventually, she began paying him to help with “customs disputes” and “tariffs” involved in his contracting business. “I was so invested at that point that I talked to my dad and my dad talked to my mom. They gave me $100,000, which to this day is the only money I truly regret, because they’re 84 and 89, and I would love for that money to be in their bank account.” In the end, even after providing documentation to the FBI, Johnson wasn’t able to recover her losses.
Last year, an estimated 21,000 Americans were victims of online dating scams, losing a combined $143 million. (On Thursday, prosecutors charged 80 scammers in connection with scams that targeted businesses and elderly women.) If your parent is on a dating site, it should come as no surprise that you shouldn’t let them give out their credit card number. But it’s just as important to make sure they don’t exchange numbers or social media accounts.
Tell them not to communicate outside of the dating website
Before your parent dives into the world of online dating sites, make them aware that they should not communicate with anyone outside of the website’s direct messaging platform; a red flag of several online dating scams is that a scammer will try to quickly move a conversation to text or email. If they exchange numbers, a scammer can easily find a linked Instagram or Facebook account (and who knows how much information your mom might be sharing out there, or what her privacy settings are.)
On Reddit, u/lostskeleton78 shared a common scam that relies on details a scammer might pick up from your parents’ social media accounts. “What happens is that the scammer calls someone and pretends to be the grandson of that person, claiming to be jailed in Canada on some drug charges/impaired driving/etc,” they wrote. “They then get the person to wire them the funds to get out of jail, all the while begging them to not tell their parents.”
Of course, you should also inform your parents not to pay for anything, provide a credit card number or help a date with any favors, though this is a lot easier said than done: If your dad found the love of his life on OkCupid, he won’t be so easily convinced out of it. (We’ll address this issue shortly.) But make them aware of red flags like these, as the Federal Trade Commission’s website warns:
- Professes love quickly.
- Claims to need money for medical emergencies (like surgery), travel documents or to pay off gambling debts.
- Asks for payments via wire or reloadable gift cards.
- Lives overseas.
- Plans to visit, but can’t because of an emergency.
And tell your parent to avoid clicking on any links in their messages; these might be attempts to phish for their personal information like passwords or account numbers.
Send them evidence of similar scams
If your aunt or uncle insists that they’ve found the one, in spite of your advice, look for evidence that they’re being scammed. Do a reverse image search on Google using any photos the scammer provides; if you find their photos splashed across stock photo websites, it’s a pretty solid indication a con is underway.
As the FTC also recommends, do an online search for the scammer’s supposed profession and whether others have fallen victim to similar scams. “We’ve heard about scammers who say they are working on an oil rig, in the military [or] a doctor with an international organization … you could do a search for ‘oil rig scammer’ or ‘US Army scammer.’”
Have your parent or relative demand identification and vet it yourself to make sure it’s not photoshopped. On another Reddit thread, u/legofhello asked his mother’s scammer to take a photo of himself with both his mother’s name and the date visible. (The scammer did not comply.) Once you’ve compiled enough convincing evidence, sit down with your parent and prove to them that they are being targeted.
Don’t be confrontational
When you finally decide to confront your parent about a dating scam, it’s tricky and can feel like a personal attack on their integrity; after all, the scammer may have convinced your parent that they will spend the rest of their lives together.
Over on Buzzfeed News, reporter Craig Silverman recently addressed the problem of parents sharing fake news and how best to stop it—and a lot of advice applies here. If you want to convince your parent that they’re being scammed, don’t get confrontational or you might risk them disregarding your evidence altogether. Be empathetic about the situation and show inconsistencies in the scammer’s stories without placing blame on your parent for believing the story.
If you can, enlist a friend or family member to regularly check on up your parent, too, especially if you live across the country from them. You might even consider getting access to your parent’s credit card accounts (and billing statements), so you can look out for any suspicious charges.
Otherwise, if you suspect your parent might be involved in a dating scam, you have a few options. AARP has a hotline specifically for scams like these; dial AARP’s Fraud Fighter Call Center at 800-646-2283 and leave them a message. They’ll offer tips on handling the scam and contact information for local law enforcement if you need it.
And report the scam on behalf of your loved one to the dating site and the FTC’s website so you can help others avoid similar cons.